Are Your Religious Leaders “Agents” of God? The City Harvest’s Criminal Reference.

Photo: Ernest Chua

In the latest development in the City Harvest case, the Attorney-General’s Chambers has filed a criminal reference to the Court of Appeal. A criminal reference is a significant event and will inevitably pique the interest of the legal fraternity and beyond. The profile of this case will be raised even higher, thus ensuring that the decision of the Court of Appeal would be pored over by law students long after the final arguments have been submitted. To understand the significance of a criminal reference, it is useful to briefly discuss how the criminal procedure system works.


Criminal references in the criminal procedure system

For crimes which have a maximum of a ten-year sentence, the case will be heard in the District Courts. In such cases, if either the Defendant or the Attorney General is dissatisfied with the decision, either party can appeal to the High Court. If the parties still wish to appeal, the last stop is the Court of Appeal.

In such an instance, the appealing party can file a criminal reference under section 397 of the Criminal Procedure Code. This revision can only be done in specific instances and only relating to a question of law of the public interest. This means that the criminal revision is not about the specific facts of the case; the court will direct its attention to a point of law which needs to be analysed. Further, this cannot be a frivolous application. It has to be significant enough to be matters of public interest.


The meaning of the word “agent.”

In the City Harvest case, the main question of law to be asked in the criminal reference is the meaning of the word “agent” under section 409 of the penal code. It might seem a small issue to quibble about, but the decision on the meaning of this word would have significant consequences on the sentences of the accused. The various church leaders have been charged under section 406 of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of a maximum of seven years imprisonment and a fine. Section 409 of the Penal Code carries a term of twenty years and a fine.

Under section 409, the offender who commits a criminal breach of trust must have done so in his capacity as a public servant, or in the way of his business as a banker, a merchant, a factor, a broker, an attorney or an agent. The question is then whether the church leaders can be defined as an agent. One of the ways in which Courts have decided such questions is by applying the doctrine of noscitur a sociis, in which the court would look at the other words in the statute (i.e. banker, merchant, factor, broker and attorney) to determine what the word agent could refer to.


Potential impact of the criminal reference

It is in this context in which the actual significance of the criminal revision should be seen. Not only will it affect the sentences of the current leaders, from a maximum of seven years to a maximum of twenty years, but it will have an impact on how future cases of Criminal Breach of Trust would be framed. For example, if church leaders can also be considered as agents, this concept could potentially encompass other professions into the ambit of Section 409. Whatever the result, the judgment will surely leave its mark on the state of the law in Singapore.

At I.R.B Law LLP our team of experienced criminal litigation lawyers will be able to advise you on your matter at each and every stage of your proceedings. Our criminal litigation lawyers are passionate about you and your matter, so please do not hesitate and drop us an email at [email protected] should you have any inquiries or require advice. Our first consultation is usually free as we are truly passionate about finding a solution for your problem.